Return to school a vital moment in the beginning of the end of lockdown
IN what is bound to be a weekend of mixed emotions for children and parents alike, our youngest pupils are preparing to go back to the classroom for the first time this year.
For these pre-school, nursery, P1, P2 and P3 pupils, there will be excitement at being reunited with friends and teachers and getting reacquainted with the daily rituals of wearing uniform and packing bags. And after so long away from the classroom, there will also be nerves.
The return of even some year groups feels like an important - and hopefully irreversible - moment in our emergence from lockdown.
It is a tentative return, however. The children going back to face-to-face learning on Monday will be in school for two weeks, followed by a week of remote learning.
During that week, students in years 12 to 14 can go back to their classrooms.
That leads in to the Easter break, after which - from April 12 - it is firmly hoped that all year groups will be able to return for the final term of a heavily disrupted academic year.
Away from schools, Covid restrictions are being eased in two other areas from Monday: groups of 10 from two households can meet in outdoor public spaces; and shops will be able to provide a 'click and collect' service for baby equipment, clothing, footwear and electrical goods.
The executive's Pathways out of Restrictions plan, published this week, is silent on setting dates for any further changes.
This has drawn criticism. So too has the fact that the executive's stated commitment to being guided by "the data" does not include sharing with us the thresholds - for example, in the R number, hospital occupancy, Covid cases or the proportion of the population vaccinated - that might trigger steps along the 'pathway'.
Others, including some health professionals and scientists, have been more sanguine about this approach.
They point out that case numbers are still too high - 166 recorded yesterday, with two deaths - to allow rapid easing of restrictions, particularly when Covid-19 variants could scupper the excellent work of the vaccine programme if they were allowed to spread.
These are valid points, though they do not absolve the executive from producing an over-complicated plan nor the obvious lack of unity among ministers.
But until Stormont signals further changes in restrictions, it is imperative that the public remain vigilant and patient.